Monday, May 28, 2012

In Flanders Fields

We often take what we have for granted, overlooking the miracles that make our modern lives possible. Some of these miracles --- technology, for instance --- appear everywhere we look, from our cell phones, to our iPods, to our big-screen televisions and latest computers. Others call for reflection and remembrance, two things that modern life seems to be pushing out of more and more corners of our lives.

One miracle we rarely notice is the human capacity for sacrifice, whether it comes in the form of parents working quietly so that their children can have a better life, or of people dedicating their lives or careers in the service of others. And though for one day each year --- on Memorial Day --- we offer our thanks, most of us are more concerned about the fun we’ve planned for the three-day weekend than we are about the miracle that has given us our freedom. For it is truly a miracle that so many of us have been willing to offer up our own lives in order that others might enjoy the blessings of liberty. Nowhere is that sacrifice, and the folly that requires so much of it, revealed more starkly than on the battlefield, where young men have suffered and died defending their country, and those they love. And nowhere is the voice of the fallen presented more poignantly than in a short poem, written almost a century ago, by a man grieving over the death of a friend.

In the human nightmare we know as World War I, soldiers were routinely sacrificed by their commanders on the altar of outmoded tactics. One of the bloodiest battles of the war occurred in the Spring of 1915. Known as the Second Battle of Ypres, the battle marked the first use of poison gas on enemy soldiers by the Germans, and continued from late April until late May. It also marked the first time that the forces of a former European colony (Canada) ever defeated a European power (the German Empire) on European soil, in a portion of the battle fought near the Flemish town of St. Julien.

One of the Canadian soldiers in the battle was a physican from Guelph, Ontario named John McCrae. Though eligible for service behind the lines as part of the Medical Corps, he volunteered to serve on the front lines as a gunner and medical officer. During the fighting, which he described in letters home as a nightmare, with constant gunfire, surrounded by the dead and the dying, and filled with terror at the thought that the enemy might break through their lines. One of those killed in the battle was a close friend of his, named Alexis Helmer, whose death affected him greatly. Having developed an interest in poetry from a young age, and finding no other way to express his grief, he composed a poem the following day while sitting in an ambulance, having noticed the profusion of poppies that seemed to spring up around the graves of the dead.

Unsatisfied with his efforts, or perhaps consumed with grief, McCrae threw the poem away, only to have his fellow soldiers rescue the crumpled manuscript from when he had tossed it, and begged him to try to have it published. Rejected at first, it was finally released to the public in December 1915 by the British magazine Punch, a well-known publication that normally focused on satire and humor. An immediate sensation, the poem stands as a stark reminder that all men are mortal, and that behind any romantic talk of the glory and honor of combat lie death, and the horrors of war. Though the poem is often dismissed by academics as patriotic propaganda it has been translated widely, and is loved for the honesty of its emotion, the understated beauty of its imagery, and the ghostly shadows of the fallen, pleading not to be forgotten.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

—Lt.Col. John McCrae

Though his words have left an enduring legacy of bravery and remembrance, McCrae never lived to see the end of the war. He died of pneumonia in January 1918, ironically while commanding a field hospital well to the rear of the fighting, an assignment he resented. His birthplace in Guelph is now a museum, memorial dedicated to his life and the War

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a retired public prosecutor from Michigan, writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure series,  The Guardians of Peace, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.